7 models for how leaders can lay the groundwork for K12 innovation

A look at how seven states are laying the groundwork for transformation and how district leaders are taking advantage of new programs and policies.

You may not know it, but your district may be in one of seven states that experts have identified as models for catalyzing K12 innovation.

Superintendents and their teams are encouraged to “examine, engage and create” with an eye toward equity as they navigate—or advocate for—policies in their state that will support K12 innovation, says the new “Levers of Change” report from the Bellwether think tank. District leaders can start by looking for flexibility around seat time, graduation requirements, and assessment and accountability policies, the report advises.

Then, teachers, families and other community members should be engaged in developing a vision for their district’s most-needed innovations. This can enable the creation of a continuous cycle of improvement. “Innovation is complex, long-term work that can run into myriad challenges,” the authors of the report explained. “As district leaders cast a vision and design an innovation process alongside the community, they ought to embed into that process a strong feedback loop…so that they can course-correct in real time to address challenges as they arise.”

The states of K12 innovation

Here’s a look at how seven states are laying the groundwork for innovation and how district leaders are taking advantage of new programs and policies:

1. Colorado: Public School Local Accountability Systems grants. Districts receive funding to develop locally focused academic accountability systems that supplement state accountability policies. For example, the grants have allowed Cañon City Schools to expand its Empowered Learning Framework, which details the skills students that need to succeed after high school and provides more professional development to teachers in these areas. Along with the district’s Instructional Program Reviews, district leaders can now share school performance data with the community.

Jefferson County Public Schools used the grant to update School Insights, a public dashboard that offers 40,000 school-level data points on assessments, enrollment, programming, and culture. Jefferson County created District Insights, an internal version of the dashboard.

2. Kentucky: Local Laboratories of Learning Initiative. Cohorts of districts are now coming together to design new local assessment and accountability systems. Two districts in the initial cohort,  Jefferson County and Allen County public schools, both developed “portrait of a graduate” frameworks and are now creating assessment systems that allow students to demonstrate the related skills.

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Jefferson County’s Backpack of Success Skills measures students on resiliency, cultural competency, innovation, communication and collaboration. Students begin collecting evidence or artifacts that demonstrate mastery of these skills as early as kindergarten. At each transition grade—5, 8, and 12—students defend their learning with educators.

3. Montana: Transformational Learning Act. Leaders in Great Falls School District used the funding to remove seat time requirements and allow more students to learn remotely so they can earn graduation credits while pursuing enrichment opportunities. The district also launched the Transformational Workplace initiative, where students split their days between high school classes and a job or a dual credit course at a local college.

4. New Hampshire: Learn Everywhere Program. Organizations can apply to the state board of education to offer programs or activities that allow students to earn academic credits that must be accepted by school districts. One participant, Friends Forever International, is an international nonprofit that helps students from diverse backgrounds develop leadership skills while working on local and global challenges in social studies, creativity and arts, science, health, and special education electives. The New Hampshire Academy of Science, meanwhile, provides hands-on science and engineering activities to middle and high school students.

5. North Dakota: Innovative Education Program. Districts can waive a long list of laws and regulations covering school day length, accreditation requirements, compulsory attendance, and curriculum and testing. The goal is to inspire districts to take a more creative approach to instruction.

The Northern Cass School District’s Innovative Education Program has eliminated grade levels and traditional A-F letter grades, allowing more students to progress through content at their own pace. All courses now have a set of standards to measure student proficiency. The West Fargo School District also removed seat time requirements so students have more time for career-based learning experiences.

6. Utah: Personalized Competency-Based Learning grants. The Juab School District, a small, five-school system in central Utah, adopted a personalized-learning model that tailors instruction to each student’s achievement level. The district has created a standards-based report card and a PD system that awards teachers micro-credentials for completing courses in personalized learning.

The Ogden School District is expanding personalized learning pathways in CTE, STEM, international baccalaureate and Advanced Placement. The district now also dedicates a full-time staff member to personalized competency-based learning.

7. Washington: Mastery-based Learning. The Tumwater and Northshore school districts are in the initial phases of PD to guide their educators in shifting to mastery-based learning. Tumwater has focused on diversity, equity, inclusion, and postsecondary readiness.

Northshore opened the mastery-based Innovation Lab High School in 2020 with a focus on expeditionary learning and is now part of a consortium of districts that are creating more flexible credentials and transcripts to help students succeed after high school. The lab school also uses a “crew” model, where students stay with the same cohort and teacher throughout their four years of high school.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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